What if the Real Shift in Power Happens Online?

The current style of analyzing the effect of digital media on politics is to look at the offline political outcome (a street protest, an electoral result, regime change) and then look back to the internet and see if there is a causal link.

But what if the offline action is not the phenomenon but the epiphenomenon? What if the real change in power, the change which determined that the protest would occur or the regime would fall, occurred before the people ever hit the streets or the voting booth? What if their interaction with one another on the internet – contact with new ideas and one another, ability to discuss, deliberate and vent, to safely reveal preferences, to plan and coordinate – made the offline outcome such an extreme likelihood that the offline manifestation is almost a footnote?

How would this power shift occur online? It is not unreasonable to say that, in the digital age, the currency of power is no longer physical force or even money, but the ability to command attention. To push the idea further, what if we say that, in the political sphere, attention acts as a proxy for perceived legitimacy and thus for soft power? That would mean that the process of gaining attention – for a person, for an idea – which happens online, is the real shift in power and the offline actions that result from that shift in attention – be it rebellion or simply a loss at the polls – is simply a result in the change in power that occurred online.

It is not new that loss of legitimacy causes changes in power because people and ideas who lack legitimacy lack authority. It is new that this shift in perceptions of legitimacy happens in a different sphere than the institutions of power. It is different if the power shift happens in the world of bits instead of the world of atoms.

Those currently in power seems to understand this on some level as both democracies and dictatorships are seeking to close, control, and limit the net. But are they controlling the wrong thing. The Chinese government seeks to limit offline collective action and they do this by limiting the words, ideas, and conversations that lead to collective action. They are trying to stop the online power shift from occurring so an offline power shift will not occur. Is this possible?

In the end, if we consider the shift in power to be a shift in power to be a cognitive shift on the part of the person who is socially exposed to new ideas and changes his or her opinion, then what dictators really need to o is police thought and the only state that really seems to be attempting this (or was under its previous leader) is North Korea. Though dictatorship persists, totalitarianism has been on the decline since its great failure in WWII. It is just too hard.

Power shifts as a personal and cognitive shift on the part of the individual citizen, where that change in thinking is mediated by the internet: perhaps this the phenomenon we should be trying to study.

image: cam.ac.uk

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